Monday, July 11, 2011

The Long and the Short of It

Two days from now, our family will switch gears dramatically. Wednesday marks the end of our ‘stay in one place‘ phase, and we turn towards a very different way of life that will carry us all over Peru for five weeks of travel. This change, I predict, will bring with it a new perspective, different standards, and certainly a different flavor of adventure.

For the past four and a half months, I have been trying to blend into our small-town, Peruvian habitat as we have set up residence in Pisac. I don’t wear shorts or short skirts. I cover my skin. I don’t buy fancy food or clothes or tourist goods. I eat the daily specials at the local restaurants for $1.25 instead of made-to-order meals at the better restaurants for $8. I shower when I smell bad, not when my hair is out of place (that means about once a week). I don’t sit on terraces, drinking martinis and looking over the working populace of the town on market days. I don’t talk loud. I don’t wear jewelry or expensive-looking clothes. In fact, I wear the same, plain clothes most days – one of two pairs of pants and one of three or four blank shirts (no “I heart New York” tees!). I try to stick to a routine that resembles that of the people around me, except with moderation – they get up at 4 am to start setting up their stalls and merchandise; I get up at 6:30.

I don’t know if anyone even notices or cares about how I act or what I do, but it makes me feel like I am living in closer alignment with the people around me when I don’t draw too much attention (admittedly difficult at 5’ 10 ½” with two curly haired, rubian daughters...). My neighbors wear all sorts of crazy American tee shirts (one 15-year old girl wore a shirt that read “Pussy” – I know she wouldn’t have worn it if she knew what it meant!), and traditional skirts that show calves and ankles. But I try to fly under the radar with my neutral appearance. I just don’t want to be mistaken for a tourist.

My Spanish may be marginal, my job requires next to no manual labor, and I don’t have to count my pennies like they do, but people tend to treat me as an equal, saying ‘buenas dias’ and ‘buenas tardes’ politely. We are charged the same prices as our neighbors (most of the time). The vendors in the market don’t try to sell to us anymore. Pisacians seem to recognize us as, if not locals, then a different kind of gringo.

This Wednesday, however, we will heft onto our backs large, fancy traveling backpacks, and somewhat self-consciously parade ourselves down the main pedestrian path towards the bus stop. This typical tourist indicator - the backpack - may sound a warning bell among the vendors we see daily but who don’t know us by name. The image of four heavily laden Americans marching away from their town may very well demote us from our special status of ‘gringos who stay’ back to just another group out of the millions of ‘gringos who pass through.’ And rightly so. Because that is what we are doing. We are going away.

We will board a bus, embarking on what in the eyes of Pisacians is an extravagant five-week vacation. We will leave behind us the beginnings of membership in this community: knowing where to get the best hot bread first thing in the morning; walking just so, without breaking stride, to avoid dog poop in the street; greeting familiar, smiling faces as we cross the square. Step by step, as our neighbors watch our backpacks grow smaller and smaller, we will transform back into tourists, slipping silently away through the hubbub of the oceanic marketplace, leaving only a minute ripple in our wake. The ripple will soon be subsumed by the reverberations of ten or twenty other travelers – some who stay and some who don’t - and then it will disappear almost entirely.

Fitting in is a high priority for me in Pisac. But it won’t be as we pass through the twenty-odd cities we have mapped out for ourselves over the next month. We are going to do blatantly touristy activities, eat touristy food and pay touristy prices. Our ripples will be so small that they will be inconsequential. On one level this may seem sad – we will have less understanding, less participation. Relationships will be short and shallow; experiences likewise. But it also grants a kind of freedom – no more small-town responsibilities, no more soap operas or politics. No more trying to fit in. And the breadth of our experience will be dramatically increased. Peru isn’t Pisac. It is so much more. And soon, we will get a glimpse of that truth, day by day, city by city, stepping back and seeing a much bigger picture.

Our time in Pisac will be imprinted upon our brains like the deep, intense flavor of a rich wine, concentrated at the root of our tongues to be savored and remembered. This next phase of our adventure will swirl and spin through all of our senses, briefly touching a chord here, causing a shiver there, like a cold splash of water on a hot day. The long and the short, the deep and the shallow, the near and the far: we will discover Peru both ways.